SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 30: Quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks drops back against the Oakland Raiders at CenturyLink Field on August 30, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Raiders 21-3. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
While Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III grab the biggest headlines, Russell Wilson may prove to be the most productive rookie quarterback in the NFL this season. He has certainly proven himself by winning the Seahawks' starting job in preseason.
On Day 2 of the 2012 NFL Draft, Mel Kiper and Jon Gruden engaged in a bit of a tiff over the 5'11 Russell Wilson. Kiper said that Wilson was a late-round draft pick at best, pointing out that of the 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL, 28 were 6'2 or taller and none were under 6-feet. Gruden bristled, accused Kiper of discriminating against guys who are under six feet tall "like me," then held his thumb and forefinger apart two inches to indicate the only thing physically separating Wilson from Drew Brees and Michael Vick.
Wilson put up obscene numbers during his senior season at Wisconsin, completing 73 percent of his passes for 3,175 yards, 34 touchdowns and just four (!) interceptions. He set an NCAA record with a 191.8 pass efficiency rating playing behind that biggest offensive line in college football. His measured up phenomenally at the combine--accuracy, poise, arm strength, agility and speed--and yet he was being called a fifth round selection for the sole reason that short quarterbacks are rare.
It's true they are rare, but Wilson is a rare quarterback. He has already proven that by being named the starter for the Seattle Seahawks' season opener, and you are completely missing the boat if you aren't looking at him in the same light as Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III entering your fantasy football draft.
Why height doesn't matter.
Kiper committed a cardinal sin for someone who presumably spends hours poring over data and trends. He looked at a correlation--there are more tall quarterbacks in the NFL relative to short ones--and surmised causation. In the video above he doesn't even ask himself why being short might be a disadvantage.
The knee-jerk response is that Wilson won't have the vision to see over NFL offensive and defensive lineman. He soundly disproved that theory by playing behind a bigger offensive line than the one that will be protecting him in Seattle and going up against some of the best defensive linemen in college football. Whitney Mercilus, Jerel Worthy (twice) and Devon Still all went in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Cameron Meredith, John Simon, William Gholston, Jonathan Hankins and Kawann Short all have similar potential but will be returning to the Big Ten this season. Wilson produced playing against four of the nation's Top 15 defenses according to FEI. He sees the field just fine.
What should be considered are the physical advantages taller quarterbacks tend to have. Larger hands, longer limbs and the strength that usually comes with size means more control of the ball and the ability to launch it farther downfield. That's easy physics, but it shouldn't cloud the tape. Why yes, that pass was thrown across the field, feet flat with a man in his face. Wilson's arm-length was measured at the combine at 31", just behind Griffin (32 1/4") and Luck (32 5/8"). His hands (10 1/4") were actually bigger than Griffin's or Luck's (9 1/2" and 10", respectively). All three quarterbacks have proven they have strong, accurate arms, regardless of their height.
Why Wilson is the best fantasy option in his class.
If you re-did the NFL Draft today following a full preseason of observation, is there any question that Wilson becomes a first-round draft pick? Wilson is the highest-rated quarterback in the NFL (119.4) averaging at least 14 pass attempts per game, rookie or not. He has gone 36-for-56 passing for 464 yards, five touchdowns and one interception through four appearances, adding 150 yards on the ground and a rushing score. Would the Miami Dolphins would pass up that kind of production and select Ryan Tannehill again at No. 8 overall? Would you?
Wilson would not jump Luck or Griffin, however, and that's okay. Those two earned every adulation with the way they played in college, and both have been outstanding in preseason. Luck is No. 8 in the NFL in passer rating (90.2), going 41-for-66 for 522 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Griffin holds a 103.3 rating with more limited work, going 20-for-31 for 193 yards with two touchdowns, and no interceptions. Both are highly polished passers, and both are physically superior to Wilson in different ways. Fantasy football isn't about picking the objectively best players, however. It's about finding the most productive, and that has everything to do with context.
Wilson will face seven defenses that allowed at least 16 QB fantasy points per week during the 2011 season. That's a tick more than Griffin and Luck, who face six weeks worth of favorable opponents. Luck's slate, meanwhile, is particularly rough with seven weeks against opponents that allowed 14 points or less to QBs on a weekly basis. Wilson and Griffin both face five. Seattle has the benefit of facing the Arizona Cardinals and the St. Louis Rams four games a year. The Redskins have to face the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles for six. Give Wilson the slight nod among the trio for strength of schedule.
Give Wilson an edge for his supporting cast, too. The Seahawks essentially added two potentially premiere downfield threats in the offseason. Sidney Rice returns after playing in just nine games last season due to a shoulder injury and two concussions, and Braylon Edwards was hampered throughout his brief stint with the San Francisco 49ers with knee problems. Both are fully healthy and have been elite fantasy targets in the past, giving the Seahawks a sneaky good receiving corps factoring in Doug Baldwin and Golden Tate. Luck will have to rely on a 33-year-old Reggie Wayne and a pair of rookie tight ends if Austin Collie can't overcome his concussions, and the Redskins are relying on Colts-castoff Pierre Garcon to be a No. 1 receiver for the first time in his career.
Standing back from the hype, is there really any doubt that Wilson is the best rookie quarterback in fantasy?
So it's confession time. I'll admit that my mind was made up before I ever put fingertips to keyboard. I'm a Wisconsin grad who couldn't be more grateful to Wilson and everything he did to lead the Badgers to a second straight Rose Bowl. He looked poised beyond any quarterback I have ever followed during his senior season, somehow striking the perfect balance of urgency and patience in the pocket when defenders were bearing down on him.
He may not ultimately be the most productive rookie fantasy quarterback in the league next year: Luck and Griffin are two of the most talented prospects to come through the draft in years, and admittedly none of the three are in ideal situations. But based on pure, objective numbers and performance, Wilson has done everything he can to place himself in the discussion. Stripping away hype and looking solely at production, Wilson appears to be in the best position to put up a lot of fantasy points this year.
The three are close, and no one, much less myself, could possibly fault you for selecting one over the other. But make no mistake, there are three elite rookie quarterbacks in this class right now. Select Griffin in the seventh round, but acknowledge what Wilson has done by earning a starting job in the NFL when no one expected him to, and what his spectacular numbers could mean with the season opener just around the corner. For goodness sakes, be better than Mel Kiper and don't deny what is perfectly clear before your eyes: Russell Wilson can play.
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